Sunday, May 29, 2011

Mourning, Memorials, and Meat

"We need to decorate the graves," said my mom.

Selfishly, shallowly, I thought only of my dad's grave. It was still piled high with dirt and rocks. There were still a few flowers from the funeral strewn about - wilted, limp, beginning to give off the sickening perfume of decay, but still there. It would be weeks - months - before it settled and was able to be covered by grass. Months before it would look normal - like nothing unusual had happened. Months before the wound and indignity it had caused the earth would heal. Months before it would be ready for anything that resembled 'decorating'. I didn't mention any of this. My mom didn't need to be reminded of how fresh my dad's grave was.

No, I didn't mention it. I went with her dutifully as we picked up flowers and gathered trowels and gloves. This was an annual ritual for my mom - one which I hadn't taken part in since I was very young. One which I wasn't particularly enthused about taking part in now. I wanted to be done with cemeteries for a while.

But sometimes, as I am slowly figuring out, it isn't all about what I want.

Traipsing through the cemetery, reading the headstones, I was overwhelmed by the palpable sense of history - the history of my family and the history of our town - our nation. So many graves -each one represented a life. Some represented lives that were all too short - dates that fell much too close together.

Many were already decorated with flags for Memorial Day - all in brass holders indicating the war during which they served. Dad has one from Korea. It had been planted awkwardly - off to the side. A lump rose in my throat, surprising me. It was not a lump born of sadness - that wouldn't have been a surprise. That was - is - the norm. No, this was pride. It caught me off guard.

I looked around at the graves of my ancestors and those surrounding them. Gulf War, Vietnam, Korea, WWI, WWII -I even saw one from the Civil War. So many flags. So many served. I looked towards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There would be a ceremony here in a few days. There would be a parade and flags and poignant speeches. I would go with Mom - she would want to go. It would be a moment for community - for shared grief and pride. Not this moment, though. This moment was for personal grief and pride. I succumbed to it.

The next day was settled upon, after a quick check on the forecast, as the day to decorate Mom's family's graves.

My hometown is beautiful - almost heart-breakingly so. It is a small town, centered in a valley and spreading out over the hills surrounding it. There is a river and there are many creeks. There are lush wooded areas. There are tree-lined streets and houses that do not look anything like those in my own cookie-cutter suburban community. The houses have personality. The town has personality. If I were to extend the personification metaphor, however, a town physician would be likely to prescribe Prozac. It is beautiful, but very depressed.

My mother's hometown, where her parents are buried, is about 30 miles and half a world away.

"We'll pick up kielbasi for our Memorial Day picnic", she said, as she added an empty cooler and some frozen bottles of water to our gear.

"Why would we go all the way out there for kielbasi? Don't they have it at Giant Eagle?"

Ah, silly suburban girl.

Mom smiled. That was nice. Haven't seen a lot of that lately. "We're gonna get the good stuff."

We headed out of town and I was once again struck by the overwhelming beauty of the landscape. Why had I been in such a hurry to leave, all those years ago? Ah, well. Town gave way to bucolic countryside. Mom was driving. She made the turns to her old stomping grounds as if by muscle memory. Now her hometown is a place that has always made me feel sophisticated, cosmopolitan and urbane - three words - and you'll have to trust me on this one - no-one would ever really choose to describe me. All things are relative. There were times in my life, I'm not particularly proud to say, when I liked that feeling - times when it gave me a false sense of superiority. Not this time, though. This time it made me feel uncomfortable - out of place - something that didn't belong in a town that was humming along quite nicely without me or my high-falutin' ways. The town was charming. I was not.

Mom made a couple turns down narrow one-way streets - more like alleys, really. "I know it's around here, somewhere." I sat in the passenger seat drinking it all in. If my hometown was on Prozac, this town was on homegrown weed and moonshine. I loved the stark contrast between this town with all of its Mom and Pop businesses and my suburb with all of its chain stores and restaurants. I found myself wanting to stop the car and walk around -shop, eat - but we were on a mission. Kielbasi or bust.

"Here it is," Mom said, pulling into a dirt clearing by a small, white, non-descript building. There was a steady flow of pick-em-up trucks and muscle cars entering the clearing, parking briefly while their drivers entered the building. There were no signs - not even the hand-painted signs that indicated the businesses on the main streets - just a building, in a dirt clearing, accessible only by a series of one-way alleys.

Maybe when Mom said we were going for the good stuff she hadn't been talking about meat at all. Maybe kielbasi was some sort of weird euphemism for....

We got out of the car and any trace of doubt was erased. We were in the right place. The smell of smoked meats was so thick in the air that I could almost taste the nitrate-y goodness. We opened the door to the building and entered a glorious and foreign land. Mom made a beeline for the counter, where she scored the very last of the kielbasi. I watched a man at the checkout plop a GIANT baggie full of ground meat on the counter. The walls were lined with memorabilia from the Whiskey Rebellion. Although I didn't see it, I know with the same confidence that assures me that the sky is blue that there was not a pistol, but a shotgun behind the counter with the register. A register which was manned, by the way, by a woman who looked exactly like you'd expect her to look - overly tanned, aging skin, big bottle-blonde hair, and a Harley tank top that was just a smidge too tight. Awesome. I wondered for a moment which pick-em-up or muscle car was hers - there had been no bikes in the clearing - then decided it didn't matter. It was all good. Mom paid for her kielbasi and I bought a small jug of local maple syrup.

As we packed the meat into our cooler, I asked my mom why we'd gone there first rather than last. "It closes at noon", was her response.

Of course it does.

We decorated her parents' graves and headed back to town, but not before buying an ice cream cone from a dairy in the middle of a corn field. For lunch. Man does not, as you know, live, by kielbasi alone.


Badass Geek said...

Sorry to hear about your father.

Eva Gallant said...

What a nice post. Sorry about your Dad, but the descriptions were so vivid...I felt I was there with you!

Cheryl said...

So very sorry for your loss.

This journey brought me home too. Eloquently & elegantly told.

Joanna Jenkins said...

Oh Tammy, My heart is breaking for you. I'm so sad to hear of your Dad's passing. Please know that I'm sending love and prayers to you and your family.

xoxoxo jj

Rosa said...

Lovely. So descriptive.

scrappysue said...

i'm so sorry to hear about your dad tammy. beautifully written post. i hope you share it with your mum!

Gibby said...

I heart you.

Swine said...

Love those little hidden sausage shops. And that's not a euphemism, either.